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Old February 14 2009, 05:47 PM   #14
Brendan Moody
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Re: Titan: Over a Torrent Sea

And here am I. This review will contain UNCODED SPOILERS for Over a Torrent Sea because I don't feel like hiding paragraphs of text behind code or starting a whole new thread. So, again, beware UNCODED SPOILERS in the text below.

In many ways, Over a Torrent Sea is a book that I found enjoyable in spite of itself. Like some of Christopher L. Bennett's other recent work, it has plenty of good concepts, with excellent world-building and some potent character material, but the execution of these elements suffers from excessive directness and lack of meaningful drama. The strength of the book's ideas ultimately makes it a satisfying reading experience, yet its true potential is unrealized.

My biggest complaint about Trek fiction in recent years is that there isn't enough original world-building and science fiction work, with elaboration of existing species and situations getting most of the attention. I'm not looking to reignite that debate; I mention this only because it means that the alien civilization introduced in Over a Torrent Sea is just what I've been looking for. It's something new, not just in terms of being an unfamiliar name but as a kind of alien we haven't seen before. And the depth of world-building here is extraordinary; Christopher's command of science means that the ecology and resulting society of the aliens is detailed and entirely credible, and although there's a lot of terminology that may not be familiar to those of us who have forgotten most of what we learned in science class, the gist of what's going on is also clear. All this made the first few chapters of Over a Torrent Sea involving reading for me, since I find such material fascinating.

Fascinating up to a point, anyway. Much as I hate to criticize the book for something I've been clamoring for, I feel there's a balance to be struck between this world-building and other elements, and Over a Torrent Sea doesn't quite hit it. So much of the first third of the book is given over to straightforward infodumps about the planet that after a while the information becomes a bit tedious simply by its bulk. True, it's intercut with some mild character material setting up some of the issues that will emerge in later chapters, but that material is too mild, and ends up feeling incidental, inadequate to disguising the exposition. This is exacerbated by the fact that there's very little plot in the first hundred and twenty pages; apart from the two attacks on Lavena, which are over quickly and not presented very dramatically, all that happens is that characters talk about various things. There's no inherent problem with talky SF, but here it doesn't build up enough of a rhythm to sustain interest. Once the asteroid arrives on the scene, though, things pick up, and a better mix of science and story is achieved.

More pervasive and more problematic than the overdose of science is the book's directness and flatness of character drama. As I mentioned above, there's a lot of potential in the character material the book sets up, but the tendency to state and then solve character problems in unrealistically and uninterestingly straightforward terms undermines things. I may have mentioned before that I consider the presence of counselors as prominent characters in some recent fiction to be a mixed blessing. It's important to foreground issues of characters' mental health, but (in Trek fiction, anyway) counselors do so in a way that saps drama, by saying "I think your problem is x, dude." That just doesn't make for compelling fiction. Worse still, in Over a Torrent Sea, everyone talks like this. I can buy it to some extent with Vulcan characters like Tuvok and T'Pel, but there's no reason other species should be able to pinpoint and discuss their emotions with such exactness. That's not realistic, and even if it were it would be boring to read about. I hesitate to bring up the phrase "soap opera" in this context, since it's the facile criticism people use to complain about having any emotion in fiction, but one of the characteristics of soaps is the very on-the-nose dialogue style where everyone knows and says exactly what they're thinking, without the kind of nuance that makes for good psychological drama.

The larger issue is that not only do the characters talk about their problems with incredible ease, they talk them out most of the time. I know a good discussion can be therapeutic, but the principle has its limits, and such things don't often make for good drama. The resolution of the Tuvok/Troi/Ree standoff is the most egregious example of this I've seen in some time. I realize there's a suggestion that the talking isn't what actually what cools things down, but that's irrelevant; on dramatic terms things work out because Tuvok is just able to say the right words and fix not only his grief but Troi's anger and Ree's rage. There isn't enough sense of struggle and context for this to mean anything for me as a reader; it just feels like the "five minutes from the end" syndrome that afflicted too many Voyager episodes. The pain that these characters are suffering from isn't the kind of thing that can be dealt with like this. I appreciate that realistic treatments of grief in a format like that of Star Trek aren't easy to do, but the falseness of what's offered here just grates. Lavena's resolution is a little better: there's still too much inerrant self-analysis, but having her realize her regret over past decisions through having to care for Riker like he was a child adds a layer of metaphor that helps, even if the text does hammer home the purpose of that moment.

Since I did enjoy the book, I'll end on another positive note by mentioning one of its real virtues: the writing of the scenes in which Lavena and Cethente explore Droplet. Having non-humans visit a non-human environment allows an interplay of worlds and worldviews that's fascinating, and the prose here really captures the way these characters experience the universe. (So much so that I'm willing to forgive the painful pun near the beginning of the Cethente scene.) It's just great science fiction writing, of a sort Trek doesn't see enough of. Which underlines my general feeling about Over a Torrent Sea: strong science fiction, not so strong character fiction, but overall a worthwhile if idiosyncratic read.
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Last edited by Brendan Moody; February 14 2009 at 06:13 PM.
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